It has long been established that people who watch a lot of television tend to be more afraid of crime. Hours of watching police procedurals, courtroom dramas, and violence-heavy local news can lead one to conclude we live in a very scary world.
A recently published, first-of-its-kind study updates this equation for the digital age. It reports that, for many people, time spent on social media appears to similarly heighten fears of being a crime victim.
"Our results suggest that overall social media consumption plays an important role in increasing fear among young adults," writes a research team led by Jonathan Intravia of Ball State University. Their study is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
The researchers tapped 918 undergraduates at three universities—one in the Midwest, another in the Northeast, and a third in the South—to participate in the study. Using a scale of zero to 10, each indicated how fearful they were of six specific crimes: someone breaking into your home; being robbed or mugged on the street; being sexually assaulted or raped; having your car or bicycle stolen; being assaulted by strangers; and being murdered.
They were also asked how much time they spend during a typical week on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit—and specifically how often they read, watch, post, or share "news involving crime and violence."
Finally, they were asked about their perceptions of their own neighborhood's safety. Using a one-to-six scale, they estimated "how much of a problem" such issues as vandalism, drug use, and burglaries are in the area where they live.
The researchers found "overall social media consumption is significantly related to individuals' fear of crime." Surprisingly, the amount of time participants spent specifically interacting with crime-related news items did not explain this result, suggesting the easy answer—reading about crime online makes one fearful—is incorrect.
Importantly, the researchers found social media usage raised fear levels mainly among those who generally feel safe in their neighborhood. This supports the idea that "media consumption may have stronger effects for individuals without personal experiences with crime and violence."
In other words, people who aren't scared going outside at night may find those feelings shifting after a steady diet of Facebook and Twitter. Why that would be remains unclear, but previous research has found social media consumption can sometimes evoke jealousy and/or loneliness. So it's not too surprising that it could also evoke fear.
This is purely a guess, but perhaps the disordered way information comes to us on Facebook and Twitter, where vitally important news is intertwined with trivia, is disconcerting, leaving the impression that the world is a jumbled, unstable place.
Or maybe those cat videos are more terrifying than we realize.